Beyond Ferguson - Unrepresentative Democracy in City Elections

by Zack Avre, Amaris Montes // Published October 29, 2014
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As we approach the midterm elections, many analysts are suggesting that our usually low midterm turnout – averaging about two in five eligible voters in recent decades – may dip even lower despite these elections drawing more spending than any midterm election in history. But it’s even worse in local elections – not only in numbers, but in equity in areas such as age and race that raise serious questions about the disengagement of a growing number of Americans from their municipal governments.

Take Ferguson (MO), where there is continued unrest in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting, the distorted makeup of the Ferguson City Council and the city’s police force with only three out of 53 police officers and out of six council members being African Americanlead many to ask: why does Ferguson’s city government not reflect the city it represents?

Using L2’s VoterMapping software, we traced voter turnout in Ferguson in all elections since 2008, paying particular attention to disparities among racial and age groups.Our findings confirm that voters in city elections are significantly older and whiter than the presidential election electorate and adult population.

The problem of an unrepresentative government starts with low turnout overall in Ferguson. Take a look at how Ferguson’s turnout of registered voters in municipal elections compares with other elections.

That low turnout is also highly unrepresentative of the community. In the 2010 census, two in three residents of Ferguson were African American, yet they have made up only about one third of voters in the past seven city elections. White voters have made up over 50 percent of the electorate in local elections over the same period, yet are only 38% of voters in presidential elections.

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The disparity among age groups is even more striking. As a super-majority, three-fifths of eligible voters in Ferguson are under 50, yet this demographic makes up less than 20 percent of voters in the city’s municipal elections. Voters ages 18-30, in particular, are merely four percent of the electorate in city elections – that represents a sixth of their share of the voting age population and a third of their share of the presidential electorate.

Residents over 50, on the other hand, make up a staggering 80 percent of voters in local elections, with our estimate of the median age voter being 63. Much attention has been paid to the racial disparities in voter turnout, yet the issue of civic engagement and representative government is clearly a matter of both race and age.

Disconnections between communities and their local government are not isolated to Ferguson. As part of a broader analysis of distortions in electorates in local and primary elections, we have found that local elections skew heavily to older, whiter voters. In Gainesville (FL), for example, voters under 30 make up more than a quarter of registered voters, yet only six percent of voters in city elections.

The problem of low and unrepresentative turnout in low-profile elections is getting worse. The Committee for the Study of American Electorate reported that of the first 25 states holding primaries, 15 hit historic lows in turnout with their overall turnout barely half of what it was in their 1966 primaries. Our analysis of municipal election turnout shows staggering declines, including less than 15% of registered voters in recent mayoral elections in Austin (TX), Chapel Hill (NC), Dallas (TX), Houston (TX), Miami (FL) and Baltimore (MD) and in single digits in El Paso (TX) and San Antonio (TX).

To combat the turnout problem, we must think systemically. The date of elections is the easiest factor to change – moving to elections in November of even years would lead to far higher and more representative municipal election turnout. Ranked choice voting would give voters real choice and opportunities to win fair representation while better civic education should start in schools and extend to innovative voter guides.

Every community will have its own solutions, but it’s time to act. Such turnout disparities are simply unacceptable – and as shown in Ferguson, have real consequences on neighborhoods across the country. Every single individual is affected by the results of municipal elections. When fewer than one in five people and even smaller shares of young adults and people of color decide who makes budgets, appoints police chiefs, and manages schools, can we really say we live in a fair democracy?

Note: the L2 VoterMapping tool uses a comprehensive database of current registered voters; however, the database does not include individuals who may have voted in past elections but are no longer registered to vote. For analytic purposes, the VoterMapping tool is best equipped to measure relative turnout of various demographic groups and compare rates of turnout within the same election year.

Special thanks to Rob Richie for his assistance with this article.